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October 24, 2012
Painting the Black
Game One of the World Series features a lopsided pitching matchup. Justin Verlander is a superior pitcher to Barry Zito by every measure imaginable. So how do you sell this as an intriguing matchup? The FOX broadcast will probably focus on what Verlander and Zito have in common—the Cy Young. Zito won the award in 2002, his second full season in the majors, and Verlander took his home last winter.
But it’s not what Verlander and Zito have in common that could make this entertaining; rather, it’s what separates them.
Zito threw none of his five pitches more than 31 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball. He threw each of his pitches at least 11 percent of the time, with three pitches—his four-seam fastball, sinker, and curveball—all within a small range of percentages. Verlander is more top-heavy. He threw his fastball 57 percent of the time, with 26 percent breaking balls, and another 17 percent changeups. You don’t need the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index to figure out which pitcher has the more balanced approach.
The image below attempts to convey the differences. I took note, during each of the players’ postseason starts, of how long it took each pitcher to throw his first first-pitch curve of the game. The number inside the circle is the pitch count; Zito is represented by the orange circles:
In his two postseason starts, Zito unleashed a first-pitch curve during his initial journey through the opposing lineup. Verlander, ever the opposite, did not go to his breaker to start an at-bat until the final time through. In fact, Verlander went without throwing a first-pitch curveball in one of his postseason starts.
A soft-tossing lefty’s ability to live up in the zone goes against conventional wisdom, but Zito has located his fastballs in the middle of the strike zone or higher on 72 percent of his throws. Verlander, meanwhile, is at 52 percent. Ken Arneson explained the why and the how of Zito’s high fastballs in a 2007 piece. Here’s what Arneson wrote about Zito’s fastball location:
Zito's fastball, a four-seamer, is usually only 86-88mph, although he can touch 90 on occasion. So he can't overpower anyone with it. However, he uses the threat of the curveball to trick the batter into swinging at a bad fastball.
In time, someone may write about where Verlander can induce swings that other pitchers cannot.
As it stands, Verlander and Zito are on opposite ends of what we know about pitching. As a study in contrasts, it should be entertaining, indeed.